Once you’re real you can’t be unreal again… by John Herron.

Most of us can remember being asked the question when we were small, ‘What do you want to be
when you grow up?’. I distinctly recall my grandmother putting me on the spot with it as a small 6-
year old boy in the presence of the visiting clergyman. ‘A pastor’, I confidently replied, and she
beamed with great pride and delight.
I changed my mind about 5 times after that, everything from a veterinary surgeon to a prison officer,
but I don’t think it came as any great surprise to many when I wound up studying theology at Bible
college and being ordained into pastoral ministry at the young age of 25.
Naïve and fresh faced I set out on the task of ‘changing the world, one person at a time’, as Mother
Teresa once famously said. I had high and romantic hopes of being a channel of peace and the
harbinger of good news and salvation to all. I thought that once God let me loose in a congregation
to serve the gospel with all my heart that the very force of my commitment would begin to bend the
reality of the place toward my vision of it, so that people could see what was happening and clamour
to get on board… I’m not sure I got as far as the palm branches in my mind, but I was definitely on
the donkey!
Of course that is not what happened. Instead of changing the world, my own world got changed.
Along the road I kept bumping into people who challenged my beatific vision of myself, who tripped
up my virtuous plans for them, who made me wrong when I had shelves of books that made me
right. Over and over there came along people and situations that I actively opposed though they
kept giving me everything I needed to wake up, lighten up, fess up, grow up, if only I had known.
The truth is that while I have never felt more engaged in what I was ordained to do, few of my initial
expectations have been met. By now I expected to be a seasoned Christian pastor, with a whole
wardrobe full of grey and navy suits with accompanying boring ties. I expected to love the children
who hung on my legs after Sunday morning services until they grew up and had children of their
own. I expected to spend the rest of my life writing sermons, leading worship, delivering pastoral
care to the living, and burying the dead – not just for 15 years, but for all my years. How romantic!
Today however no one really ever calls me Pastor John anymore, except in jest, and I am as likely to
spend Sunday mornings out walking through the forest, watching finches vie for the highest perch in
the oak trees while God watches me, as I am to spend it in church. These days I earn my living baking
cakes, not leading worship, and while I still dream of working with prisoners or volunteering at an
orphanage in Venezuela, there is no guarantee I will not run off with the circus before I am through.
This is not the life I planned, or even the life I recommend to others. But it is the life that has turned
out to be mine, and the central revelation in it for me – that I am ready to shout out loud from the
rooftops – is that the call to serve God is first and last the call to be fully human.
Christ once spoke about those who keep their lives and those who lose their lives, with the
paradoxical promise that keepers will be losers while those who lose their lives for his sake will wind
up finding them again. In Greek, the word is psyche meaning not only ‘life’ in terms of existence, but
also the conscious self, the personality, the soul. In other words, you don’t have to die to discover
this truth. You only need to lose track of who you are, or who you thought you were supposed to be,
so that you end up stripped of all illusions and pretence and lying bare naked on the basement of
your own heart. Do this, Jesus says, and you will live.

Of course, theologians and preachers work hard to explain what this means actually, and reams of
commentary have been written on it. Alas, I’ve come to see that this is a truth that cannot be
theorized, only experienced. And because it is an experience that involves real pain and loss, not
many will readily volunteer for it – but those who have gone through it will be honest to confess that
it was in the losing that they were able to find their ways again.
My losses have been modest compared to most. I am an educated, healthy white man who has
never so much as broken a bone. I have been single through all my young adult life, wrestling with
accepting my sexuality, but now have a caring partner this past year. The suffering of children has
broken my heart, but none of those children has been my own. I still have both my parents, and my
brother and sister and their families are alive and well.
I guess you could say that my losses have been chiefly in the area of faith, and specifically in the area
of being certain who God is, what God wants of me, and what it means to be Christian in a world
where religion often seems to do more harm than good. When I was ordained 15 years ago, I was far
surer of those things than I am now – so sure that I decided to spend my life helping other people
become more sure of them too. I had no idea back then that finding my life would involve me losing
it – or more, that such a loss would turn out in the end to be a cause for praise.
Little could I have known that the central message of Marjorie William’s 1920’s classic The Velveteen
Rabbit (and after which I named our café) would end up becoming my own living parable:
“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the
nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that
buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you.
When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you,
then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you
don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time.
That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or
who have to be carefully kept.
Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes
drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at
all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”


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